"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

If Business is to Decide What Education Will Be, We Must Decide What Business Will Be

The New York Times has this piece and the CBC this on the millions of disappearing birds that have been displaced and killed off by habitat destruction, pesticides, and other chemicals. Last year a big back page story was the wholesale evacuation of billions of bees from their hives, an unsettling phenomenon that still remains largely a mystery today.

The sad fact that these stories do not resonate or even register on the attention meter of most Americans is the tragic tribute to another generation mis-educated toward satisfying the most crass and debased forms of self-interest, with "self" ontologically roped off by ceaseless standardized competitions for disembodied infobits that disallow the essential development of individual human beings in ways that encourage or even allow community values, democratic values, or ecological values.

Instead, the only value that matters enough to affect what goes on in school is now "economic competitveness for the global marketplace," which serves to instigate among us a socially-atomized clawing toward the top of a treacherous pinnacle that has less and less space for more and more aspirants desperate to get there--or to hold onto their place by pushing others over the edge. Meanwhile, nearly 30 percent of Americans now live alone and never notice that the forsythia is now blooming in many places before New Year's Eve.

Can you imagine how the next generation might come to view the world if our schools injected some concern to ground the rabid consumerism, some care to temper the torpid competition, some connection to inform the caricatured capitalism?

Jane Roland Martin did not come up these three Cs, caring, concern, and connection, in order to devise a new set of courses to add to the curriculum alongside the 3 Rs. She envisioned the possibility of our existing courses developing standards that would infuse the 3 Cs into every aspect of school and every course. For instance, can you imagine that our Earth would be moving now toward the boiling point if previous generations of students had learned the science of caring for the Earth while learning the earth science? Do you think we could so blithely neglect to take note of the imminent extinction of large swaths of species if we had learned that our own lives are connected with the lives of frogs and birds and bees? Is not the continued presumed health of the global economy dependent upon our surviving its success?

These are facts of science, too, but ones that have not been included or that have been marginalized in our education that, instead, focuses our learning earth science in order to more efficiently exploit the Earth's resources for, what else, "economic competitiveness in the global marketplace"--while ignoring the underlying facts that show clearly the unsustainability of our present cultural and economic course. These are the facts we ignore, and unfortunately, the facts we ignore reveal the values we don't have or the ones we prefer to forget.

For me this year, 2008, must point to re-focusing the purpose of education toward the sustainability of life on Earth--which introduces the fourth C, Commitment. I can't think of a better beginning than this essay by Svi Shapiro, It's Time for a Progressive Vision in Education!, in Tikkun. The intro:
The primary debates are an exceptional vehicle to make, as the educational philosopher Maxine Greene put it, “the familiar strange and the strange familiar.” They are, in other words, an opportunity to pose serious questions about the conventional wisdom that guides our public policies and practices, as well as a time to suggest radically different visions for how we might do things in our society and in our world. At least as far as education goes, the candidates have failed miserably in both regards. They have neglected to ask the deep questions about what is really happening in our schools. Nor have they even begun to offer imaginative possibilities for what education might be about in these early but difficult years of the 21st century. This is both sad and troubling, not merely because of the limitations of what these individuals have had to say about this one sector of our culture, but, more importantly, because education in many ways instantiates the root metaphors that guide and structure how we think about the purposes of human life and social relationships. What we have to say about education is intimately bound up with what we say to the young about the meaning of our lives, the aspirations we value for them, and how they should understand their relationships and responsibilities towards other human beings. In this sense education is always about the qualities we favor in human beings as reasoning, moral, and spiritual beings, and about our capacity to teach these to young people. Sadly, the candidates ’ shallow banalities and overwhelmingly predictable discourse about schools has done little to point the public in new and more meaningful directions in thinking about what it means to educate the young in these turbulent times.

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